Los Angeles-based playwright Oliver Mayer revisits a disgraceful chapter of local history in "Conjunto," a kaleidoscopic portrait of Japanese American farm owners and Mexican migrant laborers caught up in the World War II-era hysteria that made a mockery of freedoms we take for granted.
Internment camp awaits Min Yamada (Michael David Cheng), a would-be urban sophisticate saddled with the family farm in rural Burbank that he inherited. Like many second-generation immigrants, Min has little affinity with his cultural heritage, considering himself all-American. "I am not the enemy!" he fumes in response to the relocation order.
FOR THE RECORD:
'Hard Core': A review of the play "Hard Core: Women's Reflections on Iraq" in Friday's Calendar section misspelled the surname of actress Margaret O'Hora as O'Hara. —
To thwart authorities, Min sells his land to his faithful Mexican farmhand, Genovevo (Gil Bernardi), for $1 and asks him to hide his very traditional wife, Shoko (Annie Katsura Rollins), who Min doubts would survive confinement.
Min's largess sets the stage for a triangular conflict with romantic, legal and moral dimensions when Min is freed.
Mayer's ability to sketch a full complement of diverse characters in vivid, muscular strokes benefits from three powerhouse lead performances. Among the capable Playwrights' Arena ensemble, standouts are Blake Kushi as Min's dope-addicted brother, Monica Sanchez as a hard-edged zoot-suited drug dealer and Bobby Plasencia as a comic Mexican laborer.
In the absence of a just social context, these characters must find their own moral footing, which often takes unexpected turns. In a playful, stylized flourish, some turn for guidance to respective American and Mexican cinema icons Gene Autry and Jorge Negrete (personified in a dream by Cheng and Bernardi).
The play's shifting realities and localities strain the limited production values, and although director Jon Lawrence Rivera compensates with inventive use of lighting and sound, the complex interlocking narratives are hard to follow. They also have a tendency to ramble, and Mayer opts for a disappointingly facile quasi-utopian wrap-up.
Still, "Conjunto" forcefully resonates in depicting the exploitation of "guest" immigrant workers and the suspension of American citizens' civil liberties. The relative progress we've made since 1942 that Mayer illuminates is far from comforting.
"Conjunto," Playwrights' Arena at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 10. $20. (213) 627-4473 or playwrightsarena.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Laughs plentiful in 'TeleMongol'
These are trying times for the Asia Home of Language Entertainment. It's hard to create programming by and for the Asian Pacific American community and snag their dollars at the same time. That clash centers "TeleMongol" at GTC Burbank. By taking down stereotypes in the context of a fictional cable network, this riotous collaborative sketch show attains a satiric edge that ranges from sophomoric to savage.
A joint presentation by Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, Cold Tofu Improv, OPM and 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, "TeleMongol" tackles every Asian trope imaginable and then some. "APPA Knows Best" pits writer-performer Charles Kim's priceless Korean mom against Jully Lee's modernized daughter, engaged to a Filipino who Mom insists is Mexican.
Take a stroll through "Mr. Hueser's Neighborhood," in which author Aaron Takahashi and actor Robert Covarrubias ravage KCET-TV's "California Gold" series. Wanru Tseng's "Desperate Asians of Lotus Lane" upends the Marc Cherry ethos with hilarious zest. "Brokeback Gold Mountain," written by Michael Chih Ming Hornbuckle, goes just where we're afraid it will; Kim's jaw-dropping "The Very North Korean Holiday Hour" goes further than that.
Director Henry Chan and his fearless cast keep the energy high and the laughs plentiful. As the network execs, Corinne Chooey, Ewan Chung and Michael C. Palma maintain straight faces, no small feat. Other standouts are Denise Iketani as an unctuous Asian history drone, Tseng as a Vietnamese manicurist/advice guru, Takahashi and Kim as jewel-crotched rappers, and Lee and Greg Watanabe as news anchors.
Ruthlessly romping about Alan E. Muraoka's logo-dominated set, "TeleMongol" may horrify the racially sensitive and easily offended. Fans of Comedy Central and "Borat," however, will roar at such wicked comic comment.
David C. Nichols
"TeleMongol," GTC Burbank, George Izay Park, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Dark Nov. 23. Ends Dec. 17. Adult audiences. $15. (323) 993-7245 or lodestonetheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.
The less visible wounds of Iraq
A woman discovers her best friend from high school has become an assassin for the U.S. Army. Marines hug a giant Snoopy snow globe in the middle of the desert. A mother, waiting to hear the fate of her wounded son, watches her husband sitting in a lawn chair in their driveway; he wants to make sure that if a casualty notification team shows up, they will not catch her by surprise. These are moments in the lives of Americans directly affected by the war in Iraq, woven into a documentary stage montage by Fullerton's Hunger Artists Theatre Company.
Comprising material drawn from more than 20 interviews with wives, friends and recruits, "Hard Core: Women's Reflections on Iraq" looks for the less visible wounds carried by women who "support the troops" in the most immediate ways.
Fluidly directed by Emily Brauer Rogers, the show features an ensemble of nine performers, dressed in street clothes, sitting on simple risers and speaking directly to the audience. This minimalist style creates a real sense of intimacy, although the production's earnestness has the occasional feel of a college project, and performance skills vary wildly.
Rogers and co-writer Margaret O'Hara puzzlingly include in the show an actor playing a soldier (James Grant), and "scenes" between the soldier and his wife (the engaging Katie Chidester) feel out of place in this testimonial-style presentation. Still, "Hard Core" offers a space to hear urgent voices too often drowned out by sensationalism and political strategy.
"Hard Core: Women's Reflections on Iraq," Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $15. (714) 680-6803. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
'Rockers' sells a winning whimsy
Three retirement hotel residents are daffily off their "Rockers" in Sherwood Schwartz's comedy at Theatre West.
At 90, the veteran Schwartz (who gave us "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch") can still sling retro Borscht Belt groaners with authority. "Those eggs," grumbles the curmudgeonly Irish Kate (Pat Crawford Brown) about the home's institutional food, "no self-respecting hen would admit to laying them."
Rose (Elsa Raven) is given to Yiddish-flavored one-liners ("Worrying is a mother's job — if they didn't worry they'd be fathers"). Rounding out the trio is Lee Meriwether's Louella, a pitch-perfect bubble-headed Southern belle. When Rose asks why God doesn't take her instead of another gravely ill character, Louella chirps a comforting "maybe He will."
It's character definition by way of punch line, and under Marcia Rodd's affectionate direction the three actresses all demonstrate the chops to sell it. The primary appeal here is to fans of the freewheeling, innocent style of comedy Schwartz honed as head writer for "The Red Skelton Show."
A few serious themes ripple across the surface — mortality, aging, parental tensions between Rose and her daughter (Arden Teresa Lewis) — but seldom bog down the whimsical tone.
Things take a decidedly highbrow turn with a visit from Rose's son (Matthew Hoffman), an actor who's just been cast in an off-off-Broadway production of "King Lear." His big break affords an opening for the three leads to play Lear's daughters in an impromptu bit of clowning. Sure it's contrived, but some sort of nod to Shakespeare has been a Schwartz signature since Gilligan and the castaways staged a musical version of "Hamlet" (the Skipper remains the definitive Polonius). The "Lear" scene here doesn't rise to that pinnacle, but it's reassuring to see a fine tradition upheld nonetheless.
"Rockers," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. W., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 10. $20. (323) 851-7977 or theatrewest.org. Running time: 2 hours.
Brecht with punch but vague aim
"Drums in the Night," Bertolt Brecht's second play, is set in 1919 Berlin, where bourgeois teacups still rattle at the emasculation of the monarchy via a liberal revolution. Pining for Kragler, her soldier beau who's been MIA for four years, middle-class Anna (Angela Berliner) reluctantly gives in to her parents' domestic realpolitik and agrees to marry a war profiteer (Chris Schultz). Right on cue, the vet (Jarreth Merz) steps out of the past and into a romantic and political fray. He wants Anna back, but radicals want him to join their cause.
Staging Brecht is a trip over tonal quicksand: Go too expressionistic and you lose any genuine conflict; play it too straight and the energy of his poetry caves in. To his credit, director Jon Kellam goes for broke. His cast even lip-syncs Sinatra and simulates sex acts. But Kellam's emphasis on high impact rather than specific intention, along with Finegan Kruckemeyer's tiresomely punning translation, leaves you feeling pummeled rather than engaged.
Too bad, since some terrific elements roam through this Actors' Gang production: Ronda Dynice Brooks' tart costumes and comic-book makeup, Gary DeMichele's percussive soundscape, the grounded battle fatigue of Merz's Kragler. But for the most part, the piece is a noisy modernist collage. Plenty of punch, but what exactly are they aiming for?
"Drums in the Night," The Actors' Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 27. $25. (310) 838-4264. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times